Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wanting to create and wanting to redeem

I like mending things around the house.  It's not that I like tools so much.  It's the task.  It's the feeling of mastery over something broken.  I enjoying sewing because it's mending or altering something to fit better.  I have been toying in my mind with a few projects that are making something new, rather than just mending something old.  They are seductive thoughts.  They are all tied into the illusion I have that I have the time and skill to do them.  A little learning is a dangerous thing!
 
But I'm sure every handyman has dreamed of building something entirely new.  Yet there is that leap, right?  The leap from just renewing or fixing something already made, and actually making something.  They are two very different tasks.  Most folks prefer maintaining things to creating things--even if the allure of creating is always there.
 
I wonder if this is true with the spiritual life.  Would we rather maintain a broken prayer pattern, or create a new one?  Better to dust off the old book than strike out and write a new one.  We might fail.  Fail God?  No.  Fail our own expectations of ourselves. 
 
Yet, there is a pattern on the shelf.  It speaks to me.  It says, "Alexander!  Pull me down and check the yardage.  Look at the directions.  You could do this.  You've made something before."  And that's when the other voice says, "Ah, yes, but this isn't just hemming a pair of pants.  This will take effort."
 
So I drink my coffee and I write the sermon, and I let the thoughts argue in the background noise of my brain.  I lie awake wondering.  "Shall I pray the prayer I know from the Book?  Or shall I pray the new prayer that comes from my heart?"  Sometimes the Book wins, sometimes the heart wins.  And either way, I'm happy, because I know that God understands wanting to create and wanting to redeem.
 
 
 
 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Epiphany 3C. 24 January 2010.

 

          I wonder how many of you remember what it was like to be a child.  I'm still a young man, but those days are sort of fading away for me.  There are moments that I remember, but I have difficulty remembering exactly when they happened.  But I do remember being asked a lot of questions.  Did you wash your hands?  Did you clean your room?  You know, the basic questions. 

 

          But then I remember being asked "What do you want to do when you grow up?"  Do you remember that question?  Now, adults don't feel any anxiety in asking that question.  We're just sort of making conversation with the child—the answer will be interesting, but you know…ask again tomorrow and the answer will be different.  We know this.  But for the child, this is a real question. 

 

          I remember feeling some anxiety when a grown-up would ask that question, because I like to over think things—so I saw it as a test of my intelligence.  You had to chose something that was fitting.  When you're very young the answers are easy, if you're a boy—fireman, policeman.  But when you get a little older, it's not so easy.  Doctor, maybe?

 

          In one of the parishes I served there was a teenager who was getting ready to graduate from high school, and I asked her, "What do you want to do in life?"  She said, "Marine biology."  I resisted the temptation to ask if that meant getting married to a Marine. 

          But she said that ever since she was a little girl she had always wanted to study fish and ocean wildlife.  Isn't that something?  I asked if she knew any Marine biologists.  "No," she said.  But still there was this attraction to it. 

 

          Most of us don't grow up knowing what we want to do.  Most people sort of figure things out as they go along.  They discover an aptitude for a certain area and one thing leads to another and there you are.  But some folks just seem to know. (Pause.)

 

          In the first four chapters of Luke's Gospel we get three stages of Jesus' early ministry.  It starts with the Jesus baptism, which is, in a sense, a rite of passage for him.  The proclamation is made:  "This is my son, the beloved."  And the baptism is followed quickly by the temptation story, which we have not read, but which immediately precedes the lesson for today. 

 

          The temptation story is something you will find in one fashion or another in every story of a hero.  Every hero is tested, and emerges wiser and more capable of handling adversity.  You start out in the flush of youth—graduate from high school, maybe college—and then enter the work force ready to change the world.  Pretty soon you are humbled by the adversity of a boss or a colleague.  But eventually you emerge a little worse for wear, but a little seasoned—reasonably cautious—more mature.  Perhaps now you can take on something bigger.

 

          And that is how we see Jesus emerge from the temptations.  Luke writes that he was filled with the power of the Spirit and returned to Galilee where a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  "Jesus began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone."

 

          Jesus returned to the people and places he came from.  He did not burst onto the scene in Jerusalem, or begin by talking about the failures of the Pharisees.  Jesus begins his ministry in the bosom of his culture and people.  He comes to them as a reformer, but not as someone who wishes to do away with everything.  The fact that people spoke well about him, leads us to believe that Jesus' early sermons were probably not very challenging.

 

          As someone who preaches, I can tell you that there are safe things to talk about and there are dangerous things to talk about.  There is the sermon that brings comfort and the sermon that brings a challenge.  Every sermon should have a measure of both, but when you're challenging people with the Gospel it can be a very dangerous thing.  It was dangerous for Jesus.  People were speaking well of him, yes, but next week we will read of what they said to Jesus at coffee hour after his sermon—they were not entirely pleased. 

 

          But I would imagine that during Jesus' first sermons, he was probably honing in on the central themes of what he wanted to communicate.  About two years ago I attended a preaching conference.  It was a very inspiring event, and I was surrounded by clergy from across the entire spectrum of denominations.  The speaker was one of the giants of preaching, Dr. Fred Craddock.  And Dr. Craddock said that we should all think about writing—what he called—"a signature sermon."

 

          He said that every artist has a signature work—a masterpiece.  Tony Bennett sings "I left my heart in San Francisco," and you know, that's Tony Bennett.  He said, "You need to write a signature sermon.  It will be a sermon that tells your congregation the central message of what the Church believes and what you believe," and he said, "you will preach this sermon every year and when that Sunday is about to roll around, you will publicize that on such and such a day you will be preaching again your signature sermon.

 

          Well, the hands went in the air with questions.  "But won't the congregation just stay home if they've already heard the sermon?"  Dr. Craddock responded, "No.  You think they will, but they won't.  Even if they've heard it before, they will want to hear it again because they will want to be reminded of the central message of the Church and that you believe it."

 

          And he went on to say that if you're in a church long enough, and people hear this sermon over the years, certain phrases from it will start to seep in to the language of the congregation.  What started as your sermon will become their sermon.  They will begin to talk about the central message of the church, and hopefully the signature sermon will serve to keep the church focused on the things of God.  Now, I have thought long and hard about this idea.  I don't like to just dismiss ideas from people who have been there and done that.  But the more I thought about it, the less I liked it.  And I haven't been able to put my finger on why.

 

          At first I thought, "Well, this is silly…the signature sermon needs to be the Easter sermon.  We are the people of the Resurrection…that is the central belief of the Church."  But then I thought about it some more, and I thought, "Yes, but the Christmas story is also central.  God became flesh and lived among us.  You can't just tell the story of the Resurrection without talking about who Jesus is, and how he was born."  And then I thought, "Yes, but how can I talk about the Resurrection without talking about the trial and whipping and the road to Calvary and the Cross?"

 

          And then still further, "How can I talk about those things without talking about the teachings of Jesus that put all of the Cross and Resurrection into focus, not to mention some discussion of the fulfillment of prophecy, the Great Commission, and the Second Coming." 

 

          This was overwhelming.  I would end up having to read large sections of the Bible and preach for…I don't know…two and half, maybe three hours.  You'd miss the football game.

 

          But for the last (almost) two years, the thought about a signature sermon has been dancing around my head, and I've dismissed the idea again and again, never really knowing why.  For a long time I thought that it was because I didn't like the idea that it would be my signature sermon.  It seemed arrogant, that this would be my signature or that I would be attempting to sum up the totality of Anglican Christianity—gracious! 

 

          But I'm happy to say that I have finally discovered the reason why I can't preach a signature sermon.  It's because Jesus has already preached it, and there is no way to top it.  We don't get much of a sermon.  In fact, we really only get one sentence, but it is more than enough. 

 

          Jesus reads the text from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  And then Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  It was the time for the sermon.  And Jesus, who has been preaching in the towns and villages, has honed in on his signature sermon. 

 

          He says, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  Another way of saying it would be, "Today, you are no longer waiting for a messiah.  Today, the Messiah has come.  Today there is good news for the poor.  Today there is recovery of sight to the blind.  Today.  Not some day soon.  Some day when things will get better is today, today. 

 

          That's what he's going to do with his life.  You ask him, "What are you going to be when you grow up."  Ask him that, and Jesus will respond, "I am the messiah and today God has come to you."  It's his signature sermon.

 

           And if you look at Jesus in every other text in the four Gospels, you will see that he preaches his signature sermon with every action and every word.  The woman with the issue of blood, who has waited to receive healing for years, gets healed today.  The man born blind receives his sight today.  The people are hungry, they get food today.

 

          The sermon has three parts.  The Messiah has come.  The Messiah cares for the poor.  And tomorrow is too late to help them; they will be helped today.  (Pause.)

 

          I have a clergy friend who retired about five years ago.  He was a parish priest.  He graduated college, when right to seminary, and served churches for years.  In his retirement he has been working for an organization that is trying to help the underpriviledged in El Salvador.  He loves what he is doing.  Do you know what he said to me?  He said, "Now that I'm retired, and I've finally figured out what I want to do when I grow up."

 

          Isn't that something?   It's like he has discovered his signature sermon, and it's the signature sermon of Jesus, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  Tomorrow is too late.  The poor will be helped today."

 

          I am beginning to think that Jesus' signature sermon is also the Church's signature sermon. 

 

 

          Maybe today we could help the poor, the sick, the blind.  Maybe we could go into our kitchens today and find some cans to give to the food pantry.  Maybe we could find an item or two of clothing that could go to someone in need. 

 

          But beyond that, what would happen if every word we spoke and every action carried the compassion and kindness that God shows to us on a daily basis?  I suppose you could say that it's what the Church is meant to do when it grows up. 

 

          You see Christ has left us with this signature sermon.  It's our turn to preach it.  It's our turn to live it. 

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842

 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Mystery of Surrender


I think a lot of people are struggling right now. I am not speaking of the economy, or Haiti, or anything quite so obvious, though the need for prayer and support for people in obvious physical need is staggering. I am not speaking of those who are sick right now, either, though my private prayer list is cram loaded with worthy needs.


But there is a more spiritual struggle to this time, and because it is poorly defined and not as easily attributable to a particular source as, say, an earthquake, it would be tempting to not speak of it at all. However, perhaps the obviousness of Haiti's crisis could be emblematic of this larger struggle, and it is the struggle for meaning.


I find myself often speaking with people who are caught between the sky of expectation and the ground of their performance. They started out with so much promise. And now, they're cynical. They don't see their lives as having meaning. And there is with that perceived void of meaning a desperate struggle to find anything that signifies true accomplishment. What have I done to make the world better? What do I leave behind?


An earthquake makes the poorest country on earth even poorer. Where is God? And the anxiety behind that question is: if God lets it happen to the undeserving, God may let it happen to us, who perhaps deserve to be taken down a notch or two. All of this anxiety is part of the greater anxiety of meaning and safe place. Where do we belong? Where is peace to be found that is not just a fleeting breath?


Big questions. The answer to those questions lies in the mystery of surrender. Surrender of arrogance, of greed, of feelings of entitlement, and of unrealistic expectations.


We are geared to believe that we are masters of our destiny. We are not. We are bidden by God to surrender. To let go. To breathe.


"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)


Try this. Lay down the unrealistic expectations you have for yourself and your life. Lay them down. And then ask God for the grace to bring kindness and compassion to every situation and every relationship. In other words, be someone who has no agenda other than to love others. Surrender the desperate feeling you have to grasp for meaning. Meaning will come to you in the simplest acts of love. And when you die, the church will be filled with people who will say, "There was a saint of God. We shall miss him."


Your life has dignity and meaning and value. Choose to love and to be kind. Surrender to that. Trust in God for everything else.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Epiphany 2C. 17 January 2010.

 

          Today we read the story of the wedding feast at Cana.  We do not know the bride and groom, in fact they never even make an appearance.  It would be interesting to know who they are, and what their relationship was to Mary and Jesus.  Were they friends of the parents?  Did the groom go to the same Hebrew school as Jesus, or perhaps one of the other disciples?  We don't know.

 

          Weddings are interesting events.  They are about a man and a woman, but they are really about so much more than that.  They bring together two entirely different families with their own histories, ways of looking at life, habits, inside jokes.  And these two families are bonded together by the marriage of a man and a woman.  It's a powerful bond.  Two people get married, but many people, then, become related.   The bigger the family, the bigger the Thanksgiving dinner, the bigger the list of people to call when a crisis happens. 

 

          Weddings can stir up all sorts of things.  Now that Mark is getting married, his brother Pete is starting to realize that he needs to settle down, too.  Cathy is getting married, and her older sister Bonny just got divorced.  I'm sure she would never want us to make a fuss, but from time to time we see her crying, and well, what do you do…? 

 

          But for the most part weddings are wonderful.  They usually take months of preparation and people spend a lot of money on them.  I remember when I was about Peter's age I asked my dad what you had to do to get married.  He said you had to find the right woman.  "But after that," I asked him, "what do you need after you find her?"  And he said, "You need a lot of money."

 

          And most of the money, as you know, is spent on the reception, which is where we find Jesus with Mary and the disciples in the text.  All we know is that the wine has given out.  We do not know how much wine was on hand, but we find out later in the story that a fair amount of wine had already been consumed.

 

          Mary sees that the wine has run out, and tells Jesus, "They have no wine."  And here John describes a misunderstanding between Mary and Jesus.  When Mary tells Jesus that they have no wine you can hear the compassion behind her words.  The wine symbolizes the abundance of good things —the nice clothes, the rich foods, the wedding presents—but there is no more wine.  It takes away some of the joy. 

 

          You don't want to think about shortages at weddings.  There is supposed to be plenty of food, plenty of drink.  It's embarrassing for everyone if there isn't plenty of everything. 

  

          Jesus responds—not to the compassion of his mother—but from the context of his eventual sacrifice.  For Jesus, the wine symbolizes his blood which will be poured out for the sins of the world.  So he responds, "My hour has not yet come."  "It is not yet time for me to give myself."  (Pause.)

 

          Nearby there were six stone jars for the rites of purification.  These jars were huge—they held twenty or thirty gallons apiece.  So we're talking about 180 gallons of water total.  Jesus asks for them to be filled. 

 

          How long does it take to fill 180 gallons of water?  I don't know.  A standard hot water heater holds about 50 gallons.  At my house, I could probably get about five to eight gallons a minute, but still it would take awhile to fill three and quarter water heaters.  And that's with plumbing.  How long would it take you to fill 180 gallons from a well—bucket by bucket?  It took time.  It took manpower.

 

          So when they've got the water filled up to the brim, Jesus tells them to draw out some of it, and give it to the chief steward.  The chief steward tastes the water, and it has become wine.  The steward remarks to the groom that most people serve the good wine first, but that he has kept the good wine for now.  He is not aware that the wine was water only moments ago. 

 

          It's an amazing story, isn't it?   John finishes it by writing:  "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him."  And that is why we are reading this in Epiphany. 

 

          In fact, for years this was the text for the first Sunday in Epiphany because it was the first of Jesus's signs—and by signs John means a sign of the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ.  Epiphany is about these signs, these manifestations of glory through which we have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

 

          Most people want to know how it works—as if Jesus is working some sort of magic trick.  But that's not what is going on here.  Once you start trying to figure out how he did it, you miss the point of the sign.  The point is the super-abundance of God's favor. 

 

          You see, the human response to running out of wine is to go buy more, and to buy…well…how much?  "Let's see…they drank two cases.  We've got another—what would you say? two? maybe three hours to go before people start heading home?—let's make it another case and by then they should switch to water anyway."  But that's not how God responds.

 

          Weddings are lavish events.  This man and woman are starting a whole new life together.  You don't want to think about how much you need.  So God provides much more than one could ever need.  180 gallons.  A bottle of wine, these days, holds 750ml.  A case of wine is about 2.4 gallons.  So, that's 75 cases of wine.  (Pause.)  How long does it take to drink 75 cases of wine?  You wouldn't believe the research I had to do for this sermon!

 

 

          But that again, is the point of the sign.  It boggles the mind.  Huge amounts of wine.  Surely some of the wine will turn to vinegar before it can all be consumed.  It's more than enough.  It is far more than just enough.

 

          And that's a manifestation of God's presence—that God does not figure out "enough" and then say, "Here...quit your bellying-aching, here's what you need."  No.  God gives more than enough, much more.

 

          And that brings us full circle, back to the dialog between Jesus and Mary.  We read that interaction as a kind of clash of contexts—Mary thinking about the here and now, Jesus thinking about his sacrifice.  But now, through the sign that Jesus has given, we see it as foreshadowing.  In the story, it is not yet time for Jesus to offer his life, but by giving far more wine than is needed, he shows us that his life will be far more than what is needed.  That the blood of Jesus offered for us is far, far more than just enough.  (Pause.)

 

          I don't know about you, but I wonder if we've become desensitized to an abundance of things.  In this country we are used to a lot.  We go to the store and we don't even wonder if there will be food there that we can afford to buy.  Not everyone can, you know.  There are people who come to the church or to a food pantry who need food—they can't afford to buy it.  But I'm guessing that most of us are more accustomed to an abundance of food and other things.

 

 

          But again, the super-abundance of wine is not such a simple thing as having a lot to eat or drink.  It is a sign of the super-abundance of God's favor towards us in the person of Jesus Christ.  And I'm not sure if you or I could ever get used to that kind of abundance. 

 

          Let us suppose for a moment that your friends and family all lined up at your door and took turns telling you—face to face—that they loved you…  Imagine that.  Imagine if everyone in your life had the emotional ability to tell you that their lives are better because of you.  It would be an abundance that you and I probably could not handle.  We might feel embarrassed by that kind of attention; we might not be able to handle that kind of affection in one sitting.

 

          We're used to an abundance of things, but not an abundance of genuine love.  We can't make eye contact that long, we can't bear to receive that kind of authenticity for more than little bits at a time.  Even husbands and wives can't really ever express how deeply they mean to each other. 

 

          But see, that's what the abundance of wine signifies—it foreshadows the total offering of Jesus, who spreads out his arms on the cross, and empties himself completely in authentic love for you and me.  That's an abundance that we could never fully take in, but if you ask me, it's the abundance that we crave.

 

           We go about our lives with plenty of things—but what we really want is to feel loved and accepted.  No matter how old we become, there is still a little boy or girl inside us who wants to be held and loved—who wants to know that things are going to be okay.

 

          And the only reassurance that has any lasting meaning is the love that comes to us genuinely—without strings, and without demands.  That is perhaps the most precious commodity there is.  Authentic, genuine, compassionate love. 

 

          We get a glimpse of it in others.  But this real love cannot come of its own from the human heart.  It comes from God who is the source of real love—love that can look us deeply in the eyes without embarrassment.  Love that can fill the empty space—the dull, aching, empty space that life grinds out of us with its bad news and violence and fear.  We don't need 180 gallons of wine.  We need the super-abundance of love that that wine points to.
 

          God has not created us with any needs that cannot be satisfied.

 

          Every human being rattles around this planet looking for acceptance and love.  Some try to get it through violence, some through physical attractiveness, some through unhealthy habits, and the greatest open secret that I know is that God is willing to give it without measure—to absolutely everyone. 

 

 

          All you have to do is open your heart to him.  All you have to do is open your heart like a little boy or girl and say, "Daddy, I love you."  If you tell him you love him, I know exactly what he'll say back.  And it will be more than enough.  A lot more. 

 

 

-o0o-

 

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

 

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Supplication

For use ... as a separate devotion; especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of
disaster.

O Lord, arise, help us;
And deliver us for thy Name's sake.

O God, we have heard with our ears, and our fathers have
declared unto us, the noble works that thou didst in their
days, and in the old time before them.

O Lord, arise, help us;
and deliver us for thy Name's sake.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy
Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.

O Lord, arise, help us;
and deliver us for thy Name's sake.

V/.     From our enemies defend us, O Christ;
R/.     Graciously behold our afflictions.
V/.     With pity behold the sorrows of our hearts;
R/.     Mercifully forgive the sins of thy people.
V/.     Favorably with mercy hear our prayers;
R/.     O Son of David, have mercy upon us.
V/.     Both now and ever vouchsafe to hear us, O Christ;
R/.     Graciously hear us, O Christ; graciously hear us, O Lord
         Christ.
Let us pray.

We humbly beseech thee, O Father, mercifully to look upon
our infirmities; and, for the glory of your Name, turn from us
all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant
that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and
confidence in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness
and pureness of living, to thy honor and glory; through our
only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Monday, January 11, 2010

Epiphany 1C. 10 January 2009.

          On January 6th we entered the season known as Epiphany.  The Epiphany is classically understood as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, or as we know it: the visit of the wise men to Jesus.  We use the word "epiphany" in everyday speech to describe a sudden moment when something makes sense—and that is precisely how we mean it in the Church. 

 

          The wise men's visit brings several aspects of Jesus suddenly and sharply into focus.  Their visit is a proclamation that Jesus is not some ordinary baby, but a king.  Not a king in the sense of palaces and robes, but a cosmic king—a man whose kingship is on a level that is both human and divine.  The wise men wish to see this king and pay homage.  The child could not grant any request.  The wise men are wise because they understand that meaningful things are meaningful for their own sake.  They don't need to have their furniture appraised on Antiques Roadshow—they know the difference between what is ordinary and what is of value. 

 

          So when they come to Jesus and unwrap their presents before him, this is the Epiphany—the moment when the value of Jesus can be seen in the eyes of discerning people.  When we look at Jesus through the eyes of the wise men, we too see that Jesus is worthy of great gifts—that is our epiphany, that he is the One who was foretold.

 

 

          Back in seminary I had a friend who was raised a Methodist who told me the story of how he came into the Episcopal Church.  He said he had started attending an Episcopal parish in Maryland that was a "high church."  He could smell this heavy, beautiful fragrance and the organ prelude was just dazzlingly, and he said he felt as if his entire body was glowing.  As the procession made its way forward—the thurifer was swinging the thurible of incense, and the choir was leading the hymn, and the clergy were vested in beautiful vestments—he said that deep inside him he heard God say, "I am worthy of all glory."  It was an epiphany for him.  He realized that God was more than he had thought.  And he realized that his response to God called for more than he had thought.

 

          It's difficult to talk about the Epiphany in a way that really gets to the bone, because, on the one hand, it's a moment in Scripture when it became clear to people—beyond Mary, Joseph and the shepherds—that this little boy was the One.  Yet on the other hand, the Epiphany is meant also to call forth an epiphany in all of us.  And that's often a very private thing.  You could liken it to knowing that you have met the person you are going to marry, or knowing that this is the house you want to live in.  It's a moment of clarity—this is the One.

 

          So, instead of leaving us with just one story, the Church has given us a whole season—six weeks—of Epiphany, and each Sunday we will read in our Gospel lesson of a moment that brings the uniqueness of Jesus into focus. 

 

          We begin the same way we always begin—with the Baptism.  It is a moment in the life of Christ that brings his identity sharply into focus.  The voice comes from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."  And in Luke's Gospel we are given a description of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus—Luke writes—"in bodily form like a dove."

 

          Now, talking about the Baptism of Jesus is not the easiest thing to do.  It might come as a surprise to learn that the early church was a little embarrassed to talk about it.  After all, baptism is considered a cleansing ritual.  The word baptism is the Greek word for "dunk."  There is nothing special about the word itself in Greek, or even the action of washing—but when we are talking about the context of John the Baptizer, we are talking about a baptism of repentance.  And it was a difficult thing for the early church to get its mind around how (or rather, why) did Jesus need to come for John's baptism.  We believe that Jesus was without sin—why would he need to ritually cleanse himself? 

 

          Luke doesn't spend much time with that issue, in fact, he doesn't even describe the baptism.  Luke writes that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus after his baptism and while he was praying.  My sense of it, and I might be wrong here, but my sense is that Jesus' baptism is meant to expand the meaning of baptism.  I think Jesus' baptism shows that ritual cleansing is something we do as a symbol of what we hope for, which is a closer relationship with God.

 

 

          We do it all the time in less ritualistic ways.  We wash our bodies before meeting with people publicly—so that we can be close to others without giving offense.  We wash our hands after handling dirty things.  We do it for ourselves and we do it for others.  Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized for us.  He humbles himself to the baptism of repentance, not because he needs to repent, but because he needs to identify with us who do need to repent.  And the epiphany of it is that that moment suddenly brings who Jesus is into sharp focus.  Jesus is willing to take part in even the smallest aspects of being human.  He does it because he wants to know our condition completely. 

 

          But also, his baptism is a symbol of our desire to know God more fully—to be united with God, as a child of God.  So Jesus shows us that he too is child of God.  And the voice from heaven confirms it:  "This is my Son."  (Pause.)

 

          It is interesting how little attention Luke gives to the Baptism.  The subject of Jesus's Baptism was a matter of controversy for the early church, so it is possible that Luke's account gives more attention to the Holy Spirit's descent to sidestep that issue.  And since the Holy Spirit's descent is worth noting, let's notice how it happens. 

 

          It happens as Jesus is praying.  It doesn't happen in one fell swoop as I have seen it depicted in pageants.  I remember seeing a pageant on television, years ago, and they staged it all to look so perfect. 

         

          Jesus was six feet tall, perfect hair and beard, physically fit, brilliant smile.  And they had a pool of water on the stage that was made to look like it could have been a river, and the actor playing Jesus smiled a great big smile, stretched out his arms, and made the most elegant bow as the actor playing John poured water on his head.  And the lights flashed and down from the curtains—on cue—a dove flew down and hovered above Jesus, as he smiled.  And it was clearly meant to be inspirational. 

 

          And if people watched that and felt closer to God, great—but I didn't like it, because I don't want people to be left with the impression that if something is not picture perfect then it's meaningless.  I'm almost certain that the  pageant people thought, "We can't explain exactly why Jesus gets baptized, so let's have Jesus be super confident.  Surely he knew what he was doing."  And maybe he did.  Perhaps we can draw comfort from believing that Jesus knew exactly why he was there.

 

          But see, I'm not so sure.  I much more prefer to think of Jesus as being just a little bit uncertain.  Not so much a big grin on his face, but a little smile, maybe even wondering a little bit why he is there, but knowing at the same time that he could not be anywhere else.

 

          I like the idea that he is discovering more fully who he is at his baptism.  After he comes up from the water, just like everyone else, he goes over to the side of the Jordan and begins to pray, and it feels to him as if something is coming upon him.  Something peaceful, but strong—like a dove.  And the voice comes from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

 

          That's who you are, Jesus.  Not just a perfect hair cut and nice teeth, six feet tall, blue eyes, perfect beard.  You're not going to make it as a salesman or a charmer of ladies.  You entered the water—you might have thought—as a regular fellow.  But you are not a regular fellow.  This is an epiphany.  An epiphany of who you are. 

         

          Mary and Joseph have always known, the Magi knew, the elders in the Temple may have believed it…but you had to find out for yourself.  You had to go about your life as an ordinary guy in order to fully discover and embrace your true identity.  You are the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  That's who you are.  You are the beloved and only-begotten Son, and through you and only you, we will discover the fullness of God.

 

          I suppose, then, the question we might ask is: is this our epiphany, or is this his epiphany?  Perhaps…it is both.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Second Sunday of Christmas C. 3 January 2010.

After a busy Advent—getting everything ready for Christmas—it can be a very welcome change to settle down a bit and enjoy the rosy glow. The baby has arrived. The shepherds have heard the angelic greeting and have rushed to see him in the manger. Last Sunday we were treated to the Prologue to John's Gospel—a work that is poetic, deeply theological, celebrative and at the same time reflective and calming. I would love nothing more than to just stay in this vein for awhile.

Mary and Joseph have a new baby in their arms. They are a new, young family—at least in our "church time" right now. Do you remember what that was like? The first couple days of a child's life—actually the first couple months to a year—can be very anxious times for parents—especially with a first child.

I can easily remember the sleepless nights, the endless soothings, the rocking back and forth. It is easy, even now, to remember that with a sort of soft glow around it, but that was a time of great adjustment.

Babies cannot even hold up their heads. They are utterly and completely dependent. And for the mother, there are millions of thoughts in her head about her baby, about her own health—physical and emotional—feeding times, diapers, and it's all an adjustment. Nothing is normal, and nothing will be normal for a couple months to a year.

These days they let the husband stay with the mother in the recovery room at the hospital—just to help with the adjustment a little—but the time quickly comes to go home. The nurse—by law—makes sure that the baby is properly strapped into the infant car seat, and they see you off at the door to make sure you are ready—with all your things—and then you drive home. You are on your own. If you are driving the car, you drive about ten miles an hour slower. Your eyes are constantly scanning the roads for potential risks—it's a whole new world. That baby is yours. If she needs anything at all, it is your responsibility.

And you get home and that's where you belong. Home. It is not time for any big trips anywhere, if you can help it. It's time to stay home and rock and soothe and change, and learn how to be a mommy and a daddy.

We have no idea how long Mary and Joseph had Jesus before the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; because Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."

We are led to believe that Mary and Joseph were still in Bethlehem when Joseph had his dream. It is around 260 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt. If they were able to make five miles a day, then they were on the road for almost two months. That's a long time to travel by foot, or on a donkey's back. Add to that the baby's needs, and you have what was probably a very tedious trip for Mary and Joseph.

They remained in Egypt until the death of Herod, and again, Joseph hears from the angel in a dream and returns to Israel, settling back in Nazareth, their hometown in Galilee.

The threat on Jesus's life by Herod reminds us of the same threat on Moses' life by Pharaoh. And the journey from Egypt to Israel is both a literal and a symbolic journey—it places Jesus in the context of the most significant event in Jewish history, the Exodus. Joseph's dreams remind us of the dreams of Joseph from Genesis.

This lesson is filled with reminders of the great, sweeping drama of the people of Israel, which is only fitting. This is the story of the Messiah, after all. The Messiah cannot be the Messiah unless he touches every aspect of the people he came to save. He is not just part of the story; he is the story. And that story is the story of God with his people.

Some months ago a friend of mine was talking about the Temple in Jerusalem, built and destroyed centuries ago, but a pivotal place at the time of Jesus. And the question was why—in John's Gospel—did Jesus call himself the Temple, when he said, "Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up in three days." And John even wrote that Jesus was speaking of his body as the Temple.[*]

The Temple was a place a sacrifice, but it was also a place unlike any other, because the Temple was were God lived. When I was a boy, all us boys and even the girls were told that we shouldn't run in church. When we asked why, we were told that this is God's house and you don't run inside God's house. But even that admonishment is far too weak for the respect due to the Temple. The Temple was where God's power and presence literally lived—it is where the Ark of the Covenant rested. The Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets that God himself had inscribed with the Law.[†]

If you read the stories of the Old Testament, you will read of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies of the Temple to offer prayers and sacrifices for the sins of the people. You couldn't just walk in there. Even the high priests couldn't just walk in there. They had to prepare themselves with fasting and cleansing rituals. The Temple was not just an important place; it was the place where God and humanity intersected. So the answer to my friend's question is that Jesus is the place where God and humanity intersect—that is why he can call himself the Temple.

Of course, the primary reason is that the Temple was a place of sacrifice, and Jesus' entire being is one of sacrifice. He is the one who both offers and is offered for the sins of the world. So in this text, we see Jesus taking on himself his role and his identity as the Messiah—even as a babe in arms.

There is no way to really translate how this text would have come across to Matthew's original readers and hearers. You and I cannot feel the same reassurance they would have felt at hearing these cultural and historical references, but the point of the text is surely to convey that Jesus was one of them—that he is fully a part of the story of God's people. And that is crucial, if we are to understand Matthew's Gospel.

Still, I am not sure that we can enter the story at this point. It would not even be the same to try to update the text by recasting it in the Shenandoah Valley: Mary and Joseph taking the baby the Charleston, West Virginia until Tim Kaine was no longer governor… I mean, it sounds kind of cute, but there is no real way to get the original point of it.

It seems to me the only way to say it now is to say it directly. Jesus was and is fully human. He has walked in our shoes, even through situations that we might not want to go through.

It is one of the facts of life that we do not have complete control. There are times when external forces beyond our control place the things we want to do out of our reach, and the things we'd rather not do right in front of us. I am sure Joseph did not want to have to move his family 260 miles from home, but he had to.

Matthew gives us this story with such little detail that we could almost ignore it. Yet, when you imagine it, it's almost heartbreaking. Not just the threat on the life of Jesus and the fear that that would have produced, but the emotional anguish of leaving home and family and the people who care, and heading off to a foreign land.

Luke gave us such a beautiful rendering of Mary's visit with Elizabeth. I wonder if Mary and Elizabeth got together again before the journey. And come to think of that, what about John the Baptist? He would have been close in age to Jesus. Did Elizabeth and Zechariah have to flee as well? We don't know.

The bags are packed. I would imagine Joseph's father might have pulled him aside and given him some extra money for the trip. I can see Jesus being held by a neighbor as Mary excuses herself to have a few moments to wipe the tears away. They get settled with the donkey, Mary and Jesus, and then with a few little tugs on the rope by Joseph they begin their journey.

It's not fair. A child belongs at home. The parents belong at home. This should not be, but it is. In time, they will be back, and one wonders if it will feel the same. Will this journey change Jesus? Will he become a toddler in Egypt? Say his first words there? When he comes home, will he even recognize it as home? Will a relative die while they are away? So many questions.

So many times in life we are on the road to Egypt wondering why in the world it has to be. Playing in our minds again and again what we have done—what we could have done to avoid this. I don't think there is a clear answer for any of those questions.

Yet there is still—I think—very much a dignity to Mary, Joseph and Jesus on their way. The situation is out of their control and there is pain and uncertainty to their journey. But the dignity that cannot be taken away from them is the dignity of having listened and been obedient to the voice of God.

And I would like to think that, as Jesus was growing up, Joseph told him again and again the story of his dreams, and the story of their Exodus. "You have lived though it yourself, Jesus. We have lived the story of our ancestors." And this is how we are to relate to God: trusting that, even in situations beyond our control, God's voice still comes. And we, too, can follow.

-o0o-

If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842, and

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664



[*] John 2:19-21

[†] Cf. Exodus 40